Vegased Out

Having just returned from our second trip to Las Vegas in as many months — after an absence of more than a decade — I think we could happily let at least another decade pass before we hit The Strip again. I feel a little bit wary of more Vegas exposure right now — sort of like the look on this chair at the Shops at Caesar’s Palace that is modeled on the bust of emperor Constantine.

You might say we’re Vegased out.

We went to Las Vegas to join in celebrating Richard winning some national awards for his reporting on real estate issues, and we enjoyed getting together with family and toasting his success.  And Las Vegas is an interesting place and a great spot for people watching.  But if you don’t gamble — and we don’t — it gets old quickly. The extreme heat, the jostling crowds surging from casino to casino, the slot machine-boosted level of general background noise, the inflated prices for just about everything other than the cheapest souvenir, and the sense that almost everyone around you is eager to cut loose and create their own “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” anecdote to tell their pals back home . . . it all makes Las Vegas a weird place.

Most American cities are pretty similar; only a few are really distinctive, with a special vibe all their own. Las Vegas is one of the few — but a little taste of it is plenty.

End Of The Strip

This morning I walked down to Mandalay Bay, which anchors the far end of The Strip. Saturday morning is a good time for a walk in Las Vegas — the crowds are gone, and other than a few joggers and some muttering people lurching out of the casinos, you’ve pretty much got the sidewalk to yourself.

The end of The Strip is a bit strange. Unlike the other end, where the modern Strip morphs into Old Las Vegas in a haze of Strip malls, construction sites, and cheesy wedding chapels, the Mandalay Bay end is more abrupt. You’ve got a fake New York skyline, a fake castle with multi-colored turrets, a fake Egyptian pyramid and Sphinx, the golden Mandalay Bay towers, and then . . . desert nothingness. Guests at Mandalay Bay look in one direction and see a gambling fantasyland, and look in the other and see a desolate waste.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Flamingos After Dark

There’s a lot of sameness in Las Vegas. You see the same slot machines and “no limit” rooms, one roulette wheel looks like another, and it seems like every casino has a Gordon Ramsey “Hell’s Kitchen”-themed restaurant. (How much “hell” can one guy produce, anyway?)

With so much sameness, it’s not surprising that every casino in Vegas appears to have adopted some kind of gimmick to distinguish it from its neighbors. The Flamingo, for example, has a little outdoor area where you can find actual flamingos. You have to walk through the entire casino to get there — because casino designers consciously make you walk through the casino area to get anywhere — but you can find the real flamingos outside, going about their grooming and classy strutting without paying too much attention to the fact they they now live in an artificial habitat next to a casino where Donny and Marie Osmond perform.

I feel sorry for the flamingos.

Lost In The Mists

The daytime temperature in Las Vegas these days is topping out at around 100 degrees. That’s ludicrously hot, even by mad dogs and Englishmen standards. So, how to lure the crowds staggering from one casino to another to stop at an outdoor cafe for an aperitif? The entrepreneurial proprietors at some spots offer a refreshing mist, the better to cool your fevered brow and stimulate your thirst.

How is that working, you ask? Well, no one was sitting at this outdoor cabaret, even though the misters were firing at full throttle. It turns out that, after the initial cooling sensation, the misters just leave you feeling a bit soggy — and it still is 100 degrees outside.

Stand-Up In The #MeToo Era

Last night a group of us went to Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.  It was the first time I’d been to a comedy club in the post-Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo era, and as we waited for the performance I found myself wondering if the MeToo movement would have any obvious effect on the material the comics would address.

Having now sat through a very funny night of performances by three different comedians, including Brad Garrett himself, I can report that, last night at least, the MeToo movement didn’t seem to have a material impact on the subject matter of the humor.  The comedians were as raunchy and focused on sexual humor and race- and ethnicity-related jokes as they’ve ever been.  So far as I can tell, the only change is that the sex-oriented humor dealt more with the sexual attributes and capabilities of men, rather than women.  I’m not sure that is a real change, because a rich vein of modern American humor has always been of the self-deprecating or male-on-male roasting variety.  Think of Henny Youngman or one of the Dean Martin celebrity roasts, for example.

Stand-up comedy is almost by definition not politically correct, because a significant element of humor is shock and surprise and lampooning social norms.  When, as happened last night, there is ongoing interplay between the performers and the audience, there are bound to be off-color comments as the comedians lob a few insults at the brave people in the front row.  And in the set monologues, there was lots of racially and sexually tinged humor that was at, or over, the edge.  But nobody seemed to be terrified about crossing any new, poorly defined boundaries, nobody seemed to be aggressively self-editing, and nobody seemed mortally offended, either, when last night’s performance came to a close.

One performance obviously doesn’t permit me to draw deep conclusions, but I’m guessing that live stand-up comedy is going to survive the MeToo movement.  But boy, if they ever outlaw jokes about sex and male body parts, stand-up comedy might not survive.

The Melting Pot

One of the more interesting things about our brief visit to Las Vegas was how diverse the place seems to be.

web1_tourism_101116bh_497_7281632In my walks navigating through the throngs of people up and down the Strip — which is a pretty good place for both walking and people watching — I saw people of all colors, shapes, and sizes (and, frequently, degrees of inebriation) taking in the sights.  The shirts people wear tell you that the place is a magnet for bachelorette parties, family reunions, conventions, and other small-scale get-togethers for people from all over, and you’ll hear lots of people speaking other languages as you walk by.  Las Vegas is like a microcosm of the American “melting pot” idea, reduced to city size.

Which raises the question:  why are so many different people drawn to a place like Las Vegas?  I’m sure that a lot of people just like the prospect of gambling, drinking, and otherwise cutting loose in a place that is legendary for its consequence-free, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mentality.  More broadly, though, I think many people are seeking a little spectacle and energy to break the routine and spice up their lives.  Las Vegas — with its neon, and fantastic buildings, and “anything goes” ‘tude — supplies it.

Old Vegas

If you head down the Strip toward the towering Stratosphere, it’s a bit like walking back in time. You leave behind all of the huge, sprawling casino and hotel complexes, with their lovely pools and different entertainment options and fine dining establishments, and end up passing places that are much more modest in scale and cost. These are places that date back to the earlier days of Vegas, when wedding chapels, all-you-can-eat buffets, and inexpensive motel rooms were among the attractions.

One of the places you’ll pass is Circus Circus, with its giant neon clown sign. When I came to Vegas in the late ’70s with college buddies, Circus Circus was one of our specific destinations because it was featured in one of our favorite books — Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. We played blackjack there, watched some of the circus acts, and used some lucky winnings to wolf down a huge meal at the all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet.

When Doctor Gonzo wrote the book, Circus Circus was one of the new generation of casino hotels. Given Las Vegas’ seemingly constant reinvention of itself, I wondered if I would find on this trip that Circus Circus had been replaced by some new shimmering tower. I was glad to see that it is still there, offering a glimpse of a different Vegas.

Sign Clash

This morning’s walk disclosed this great confluence of signs on the outskirts of Old Vegas — a marijuana dispensary next to the “Strip Gun Club.” (I think the “strip” refers to the location on Las Vegas Boulevard and not to the lack of clothing on the employees.)

I wonder how many patrons frequent both establishments? Also, do you think there’s a liquor store nearby?

Red Rock Biking

Las Vegas is an interesting place, but the surrounding countryside is worth exploring.  Yesterday, our group ventured about a half hour away from the Strip, out to the Nevada version of Red Rock Canyon — it seems like there’s one of those in just about every western state — for a bike tour with Allison and John, the fine folks at redEbike.

First, a word about the basics of the tour.  Allison and John really make it easy.  Allison picked us up at our hotel and drove us out to the Canyon, John gave us a careful but quick training session on the bikes, and on the tour itself Allison led our pack and John followed to make sure that we stayed together.  As a result, there are no issues with getting lost or taking a wrong turn.

Second, you don’t need to be a cycling stud to do this tour.  The redEbike tours use electric bikes, so you won’t need to be huffing and puffing up the inclines.  The bikes have a quiet motor that is triggered by either moving the pedals or a thumb toggle switch on the handlebars, with four speed options.  So long as you know how to ride a bike (and we all know that once you’ve mastered that skill, you never really forget it), you can operate the bikes and enjoy the ride.  After a little training spin around the parking lot to get the hang of changing the speed setting, we were all ready to go.  On the tour itself, I used the pedals rather than the thumb toggle in order to preserve a modicum of self-respect and feel like I’d gotten a decent amount of exercise.

Third, the tour itself is terrific.  You follow a 16-mile track through Red Rock Canyon that takes about four hours.  You very comfortably share a two-lane road with cars on what is predominantly a one-way loop, going up 1100 feet — that’s where those nifty motors come in handy — and then down again.  The 16 miles are divided into bite-sized, three or four mile chunks with stops that allow you to goggle at the surroundings, walk around, and even get a miniature nature tour about how you can use the plants to survive a zombie apocalypse.  (There are bathrooms at several of the stops, too.)

The scenery is absolutely stunning.  The first stop is a red rock expanse that is used by hikers and rock climbers, pictured above, to show you conclusively that you aren’t in the Midwest anymore, and the rest of the scenery is equally striking.  Add in the fresh air, the desert plant life, the feel of sunshine on your back and the wind in your hair, and a few S curves and occasional straightaways where you can let the bike do its thing, and you’ve got a great alternative to neon, smoky casinos, and huge crowds.

Is there any downside to this great little excursion?  Well, you must don a bicycle helmet and simply accept that, for the entire ride, you’ll look like a hopeless nerd — because that’s what bicycle helmets are designed to do.

Thanks to Allison, John, and redEbike for a wonderful, truly memorable experience for our group.  If you are out in Vegas and looking for for a break from the norm, I give it five stars.  You can learn more about the redEbike electric bike tours here.

Still Fab After 50

Amazingly, more than 50 years after the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released during the summer of 1967, the iconic photo of the Fab Four from the album towers over the Las Vegas strip. The Cirque du Soleil show Love, which features Beatles music, is one of the most popular shows in town.

The Beatles’ music may not prove to be literally timeless, but it has held up pretty well for more than a half century and obviously is still going strong.

Dawn Over The Strip

I can confirm that the sun does in fact set on Las Vegas — and it rises the next morning, too. When I looked out my hotel window this morning I saw dawn’s first rays striking the garish gold Trump hotel across the street, and learned from one of the huge neon signs for the neighboring Wynn hotel that Paul Anka, of all people, is one of their featured acts. Paul Anka!

Gold buildings, neon, still-performing figures from the ’60s, dusty desert mountains in the distance . . . I’ve definitely arrived in Las Vegas.

Fountain Art

On the walk between my hotel and my meetings in Houston this week, there is one of these timed fountains. Maybe it’s because I live in fountain-deprived Columbus, but I find it to be fascinating and beautiful. Not in an overpowering, Las Vegas fountain performance to the sounds of Mannheim Steamroller kind of way, but rather for the simplicity of the arcs traced in the air by the controlled bursts of the water.

It makes me wish that Columbus were more like Rome, and that there were more fountains in the world. I’ll take a fountain over a rusting piece of generic abstract art on a corporate plaza any day.

Mechanized Slaughter

The shooting Sunday night in Las Vegas is the worst mass killing in modern American history, with a single gunman killing 59 people and injuring hundreds as he fired shots into a country music festival crowd — but it’s different only in degree, and not really in kind.  Accused gunman Stephen Paddock was a little older than the norm, but he was just another lone gunman who was inexplicably motivated to indiscriminately slaughter random people for no readily apparent reason.  We’ve heard this story before.

reported-shooting-at-mandalay-bay-in-las-vegas-crop-promo-xlarge2Police officials will tell you that there is no viable way to stop “lone wolf” lunatics from launching their deadly attacks if they manage to avoid creating a criminal record, as Paddock did, and that’s the scary thing for the rest of us.  Equally scary is the lethal arsenal that Paddock accumulated and then took to his killing room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas casino hotel.  Paddock had 23 firearms in his hotel room.  (Paddock had another 19 firearms, and explosives, at his home.)  And while the investigation isn’t concluded yet, indications are that Paddock may have used an automatic weapon and modified other weapons to convert them from semi-automatic to automatic, allowing him to fire more rounds of ammunition in shorter time periods.  The devices found in the hotel room also included a stand and a scope that allowed Paddock improve his aim and better carry out his murderous intentions.

We may never truly know what set Stephen Paddock on the path to cold-blooded mass murder, and we may never be able to identify and thwart the impulses of other lone wolf killers — but it seems like we should be able to do something about the ability of a single person to amass a trove of automatic and semi-automatic weapons that could kill and injure hundreds of innocent people if that person happens to run off the mental rails.  I can understand people wanting a handgun for personal security, and hunters needing a rifle for hunting.  But there is a big difference between owning one or two firearms and owning dozens of guns that could be modified to fire dozens of rounds a minute and allow an unknown 64-year-old to turn himself into a ruthless killing machine.  We’ve got to figure out a way to prevent this kind of mechanized slaughter in the future.

Stoned On The Strip

Yesterday legal marijuana sales began in Nevada.  Well, why not?  In the Silver State there’s already legalized gambling and prostitution, a tradition of Rat Pack boozing and partying, and a prevailing “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” ethos.   So why not add marijuana to the mix, to ensure that every imaginable mood-altering option is available to people who can pay with the coin of the realm?

They don’t call it Sin City for nothing.

las-vegas-stripNevada now is the fifth state to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use.  In Nevada, adults 21 and over can purchase and possess up to an ounce of marijuana, but public use is still prohibited — because, even in Las Vegas, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Some of the Las Vegas marijuana stores, with names like Reef Dispensaries and Euphoria Wellness, opened at midnight, to take advantage of the first moments that the new law took effect, and reported long lines and brisk business.  One purchaser said “you don’t have to hide in the corner anymore and feel bad about it,” and thereby articulated one of the core concepts underlying Las Vegas culture generally.

The trend toward general legalization of marijuana seems pretty clear and probably is close to irreversible, but I’ll still be interested in how it all works out for Las Vegas.  Drinking seems to go a lot better with gaming than marijuana does.  You wouldn’t think that stoned individuals would be particularly keen about going out to gamble, where they probably would wonder whether everyone was staring at them and whether it was their turn to take a hit at the blackjack table.  Maybe Nevada is just trying to stimulate sales of Dark Side of the Moon.

Pro Sports In Vegas

The NFL has approved the request of the Oakland Raiders franchise to move to Las Vegas.  It’s not clear when the Raiders will actually start playing in Vegas, and the team will likely play another season or two in Oakland, but a new stadium is expected to be built for them in their new home in southern Nevada in time for the 2020 season.

ows_149067187344496The story here isn’t another move of a pro sports franchise; teams packing up and hauling their operations to a new town is old news these days.  The Raiders, who have shuttled back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles and always seem to be either moving or on the verge of moving, are one of the hand-wringing teams that are forever working their local government for a more lucrative deal.  If Las Vegas wants to foot the bill for a lavish new domed stadium — which is expected to cost at least $1.9 billion, with the costs being split between revenues generated by an increased hotel room tax, the Raiders organization, and a Las Vegas gazillionaire — to get the NFL brand associated with Sin City, that’s its decision to make.

No, the real story here is that the Raiders’ approved move to Las Vegas is just the latest evidence of the increasingly accepted association of gambling and sports.  Gambling used to be one of the chief concerns of professional and college sports teams.  From the Chicago Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, to the college basketball point-shaving scandals of the ’40s and ’50s, to the suspension of Pete Rose from major league baseball for betting on baseball games, sports leagues traditionally reacted viscerally to any association with gambling.

But a lot has changed in America, and gambling has become much more commonplace and accepted.  When I was in Philadelphia recently the landscape was dotted with signs for casino gambling; the slot machines and table games that used to be reserved for Las Vegas can now be found in more than half the states in America.  Betting on sports events has become so routine that the lines and odds on games and matches are available to anyone with a few strokes of a keyboard, and one of America’s great annual pastimes is participating in the NCAA March Madness pool at the office.  There’s not as much of a taint to gambling as used to be the case.

But, is it good to have an NFL team in Las Vegas, where sports gambling is legal and people can make, or lose, huge sums of money if the point spread gets covered because of a flukey last-minute play?  Is it wise to have professional athletes living in a community where, at a party or charity event, they may hobnob with some well-heeled but shady characters who might drop a hint or two about how the athletes and their teammates could make some easy money without costing their team a game?  Could you envision a scenario where an NFL star has a bad run of luck at the gaming tables and is encouraged to even the score by missing a block or dropping a sure touchdown catch?  I suppose you can argue that pro athletes could be exposed to such characters, and temptations, anywhere in America, but gambling is so deeply engrained and accepted in the Las Vegas culture that I’m not sure other situations are really comparable to pro athletes being based in a place that is often called a “gambling mecca.”

We’ve come a long way since the days when pro sports teams did whatever they could to project a squeaky clean image.  Now we’ll have an NFL team located squarely in the most gambling-oriented town in America.